An Englishwoman in Calcutta
Ranjana Kaul
HARTLEY HOUSE, CALCUTTA by Phoebe Gibbes Oxford University Press, 2008, 222 pp., 475
June 2008, volume 32, No 6

Hartley House, Calcutta is one of the earliest British novels of India and its depiction of expariate life during the early years of colonial presence in India is all the more remarkable for having been written by someone who had, possibly, never set foot in the country. The novel was first published in 1789 and was favourably reviewed by Mary Wollestonecraft who called it ‘An entertaining account of Calcutta, and the different inhabitants of the country, apparently sketched by a person who had been forcibly impressed by the scenes described.’ Phoebe Gibbes’s strongest connection with India lay in the fact that her only son died in the country which is often represented in her novels as the land of opportunity for enterprising young men, though the threat of death is never far away. Sophie Goldborne, the heroine of Hartley House, Calcutta, calls India ‘the grave of thousands’ but quickly adds that it is also, ‘a mine of exhaustless wealth ! The centre of unimaginable magnificence! An ever blooming, an ever brilliant scene.’

The novel is written in the epistolary form popularized by Richardson in his novels and narrates the experiences of Sophie, a young lady who travels to India as the companion of her sea captain father. Sophie’s letters make it evident that her response to India is strikingly different from that of the majority of the memsahibs who populated the pages of popular colonial fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She is enchanted by the ‘splendor’ of Hartley House and on disembarking from the ship she says, ‘my astonishment and delight so abundantly increased at each advanced step, that the European world faded before my eyes, and I became orientalized at all points.’ Sophie’s letters deal with themes and concerns similar to those which reappear in later novels describing the minutae of life in British India, but are surpisingly free from the prejudices of race and colour which impacted subsequent colonial responses to the subcontinent. Her positive attitude towards the ‘Gentoo’ religion and her statement that ‘I am become a convert to the Gentoo faith’ may be the responses of a romantic sensibility to an exotic new cultural experience but they represent a far more inclusive appreciation of an alien culture than is to be found in subsequent colonialist fiction written by women.

Sophie’s sympathetic attitude towards India, however, does not preclude an active participation in Calcutta society and all its pleasures and preoccupations. She takes delight in military reviews, excursions to the countryside and the theatre and accepts with equanimity the relatively lax social norms of a milieu where men have ‘constant access to the ladies their rank entitles them to visit’. Very early in the novel Sophie declares that she will never marry in India as she does not want to be considered as part of the ‘fishing fleet’ of young women who came out from Britain with the specific purpose of finding a rich husband. But she has enough vanity to be flattered by the attentions of her numerous admirers, many of whom she rejects without much thought or concern.

Commerce and marriage are two of the recurrent thematic strands in the novel. Apart from Sophie’s responses to the wonders of the new world she encounters, her growing attachment to Doyly and her father’s relationship with the admirable Mrs D provide significant connecting links in her correspondence with Arabella. Money impacts both relationships and individuals deeply, as in most works belonging to the oeuvre of fiction written by women belonging to the middle class in Britain during this time. The lavish lifestyles of the British in Calcutta, and even their tolerance of the vagaries of the eastern climate are dependent upon the comforts provided by commerce. In one of her earlier letters Sophie complains to Arabella about feeling imprisoned and enfeebled by the sun and by the constant presence of so many servants. She longs for ‘one delightful stroll in St. James’ Park’ unencumbered by the paraphernalia of palanquins carriers and bearers but in the very next line she says, ‘I reprobate all that I have written—My father has this instant filled my purse with gold mohurs, value fifty shillings, or sixteen rupees, each … and my mind is restored to the pinnacle of grandeur, from which it had so meanly fallen’. Money evidently provides adequate compensation for the discomforts of life in the East.

The novel contains many factual errors and assumptions, including the assertion that the monsoon arrives in February in Calcutta and that all Brahmins are necessarily celibate, but Sophie paints a vivid picture of the closely entwined, almost decadent lives of an expatriate British society primarily concerned with commerce and pleasure. Writing to her friend Arabella in England she reveals that two o’clock in the morning is ‘absolutely a plebian time of breaking up company at Calcutta—Refreshed by your afternoon’s sleep, and braced by the cool breezes of the evening, you consider time as made only for enjoyment, and repose as an outrage on conviviality.’ Despite some criticism of Gibbes’s apparently second hand knowledge of the world she describes, the wealth of detail in her descriptions prompted contemporary journals to quote her fictional representations as authentic descriptions of India during the time of Warren Hastings. Her account of the procession and retinue of Nawab Mubarak-ud Daula in the novel was, in fact, replicated almost verbatim by The New Annual Register, a prestigious news journal of the time. Thus testifying not merely to the dearth of information about India, but also to the interest it generated among the British public.

Fiction about India written by the British during the period of colonial presence in this country has been subject to exhaustive scrutiny. Critics have frequently drawn attention to the significant role played by literary texts in the formation and modification of colonial discourses and in the representation and creation of social and cultural stereotypes. Hartley House, Calcutta, however, portrays India from a point of view refreshingly different from that of better known colonialist writers belonging to what Greenberger calls the ‘age of certainty’ or the age of high empire. As Michael Franklin points out, in his extensive and informative introduction, Gibbes’ sympathetic, portrayal of India and its culture belongs to ‘the brief period of sympathetic and syncretic admiration of India which gradually gave way to a more critical and evaluative representation of the country and its inhabitants as the British assumed greater political and administrative control over the country’. It is perhaps the encapsulation of this relatively positive attitude and the feminine perspective it offers which, more than any claim to literary excellence, make Hartley House,Calcutta a very interesting and readable novel.

Ranjana Kaul teaches English Literature in the College of Vocational Studies, Delhi University. She has worked on the impact of marginality on literary representations of women from minority communities and translates Kashmiri and Hindi literature into English. 

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